LAS VEGAS -- While the number of on-duty deaths for America's fire service in 2007 did not see a dramatic change, the number of wildland firefighter deaths dropped by almost two-thirds.
Experts say a new set of tactics -- based on safety -- may be the reason for the decline.
Jim Smalley, manager of the NFPA Wildland Fire Protection Division, believes that the reduction stems from a major change in tactics following recent fires that took the lives of multiple firefighters.
Citing the 2006 Esperanza Fire that claimed four firefighters and the Thirty-Mile fire in 2001 that killed four, he said there has been a reduction in night firefighting operations.
"Night firefighting is very infrequent now" Smalley said. "They have gone from doctrinal principles and they do what's right and do what's safest while effectively doing their jobs."
Smalley believes that other changes over the last five years, including the reduction on the deployment from 21 days to 14 days, advances in firefighter hydration and the overall length of the work day, are advancing the firefighter safety measures.
Presenting the report at the annual NFPA conference on Monday, Rita Fahy, manager of fire databases and systems, said: "This is a fairly typical breakdown of the 102 on-duty deaths."
The NFPA criterion for on-duty death differs from the USFA and National Fallen Firefighters' Foundation.
While the number of calls has doubled over the last 20 years, the number of fires has decreased by one-third and the number of EMS calls has doubled. "The number of fires calls is going down and that has helped decrease the number of firefighter deaths," Fahy said.
Fatal vehicle crashes tied 1988 with 26 incidents -- the second highest number since the NFPA has collected such data.
Fahy said 37.6 percent of those wrecks involved personal vehicles; tankers/tenders, 21 percent; pumpers, 21 percent; support vehicles, 13.5 percent; ambulances, 4 percent; ladder trucks, 2.3 percent.
While 2007 saw the second highest number of structural firefighter deaths in 10 years, the number of wildland deaths was the lowest in 10 years, with only three. The average had been 10.
The NFPA Report Shows:
- Of the 102 fatalities in 2007, 53 were volunteers, 42 career and five were employees of the federal or state land management agencies. One was a contractor to the land management agencies and served on an industrial fire brigade.
- Fire ground actions 35 percent
- Responding and returning to alarms, 29 percent
- Training deaths, 13 percent with seven percent being non-fire emergencies.
- Sixteen percent of deaths were categorized as "other on-duty." Those include 11 that occurred during station duties, two during community event preparations, one returning from a prescribed burn, one while preparing for a parade and one while flagging a fire line at a construction project.
The number of asphyxiation deaths increased dramatically, but it was attributed to the nine firefighters killed in Charleston.
Sudden cardiac events totaled 38 deaths, and 21 of the victims had pre-existing medical conditions including prior heart attacks and heart disease.
Dr. Thomas Hales, an epidemiologist who investigates firefighter fatalities for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, spoke on the heart attack risks that firefighters face.
His research shows that only 57 percent of departments require medical evaluations for its members, and 21 percent require stress tests. While 39 percent of departments have a wellness program in place, only nine percent have a mandatory fitness program.
Most firefighter heart attacks occur in the late afternoon, when firefighters have the most runs, compared to the public, whose heart attacks occur in the morning.